The latest exhibition at the New York State Museum weaves together art as history and art as, well, art.
“Art of the Erie Canal,” which opens Saturday, makes the case that the Erie Canal had as much impact aesthetically as it did economically.
The exhibition coincides with “Enterprising Waters: New York’s Erie Canal,” which opened last year in celebration of the canal’s bicentennial. When curators Ashley Hopkins-Benton and Karen Quinn were pulling everything together, they discovered many great pieces of art that didn’t quite fit in the history-based exhibition.
“I think it shows another side or result of the canal beyond the economic impact,” Quinn said.
Take Johan Mengels Culverhouse’s dark yet glowing cityscape, “Clinton Square, Syracuse, New York.” It’s a mysterious scene, with moonlight shimmering across the blue-gray clouds, the canal and the buildings, all aglow with candlelight. The canal isn’t necessarily in the foreground, but it hints at why the city is bustling and glowing.
Culverhouse, originally from Holland, settled in Syracuse later in life and set up a studio in the city, which was a major crossroads for the canal and rose up in part because of that. The canal allowed artists from around the world to come up from New York City and the Hudson River to look for all kinds of work.
“It got artists from the Hudson River School [out] into the country,” Quinn said.
The school was the first American art movement, focusing on landscapes infused with a sense of romanticism. It captured the zeitgeist of the mid-19th century, that of expansion into the wild, overwhelming natural beauty and the desire to create something equally beautiful yet set apart.
But the exhibit's curators were careful to not focus completely on landscapes. The exhibition contains more than 60 works, collected from galleries, museums and private collections across the state.
“I think people will be surprised that we didn’t just include landscapes,” Hopkins-Benton said.
“Art of the Erie Canal” includes portraits and dishware, advertisements and even technical drawings of a sort.
“I think we delighted in finding things from different sources,” Hopkins-Benton said.
Instead of zeroing in on professional, “famous fine artists,” the exhibition features a range of artists from various economic and social backgrounds. There are folk artists, draftsmen, portrait painters, Native American artists, potters and more.
“[It gives] a glimpse of how broadly the canal influenced artists,” Quinn said.
The canal remains an important piece of history, though it’s not as economically vital as it once was. And the landscape has certainly changed. There are no longer enormous Greek Revival-style homes lining the canal. Instead, many towns along the route have run-down or abandoned homes, some of which are pictured in the exhibit.
The works document the rise and decline of the canal, spanning roughly the 19th century to the 20th century, according to Quinn.
“It was fascinating to see how far into the 20th century the canal had an impact,” Quinn said.
A landscape of the Beech-Nut Factory in Canajoharie is perhaps one of the most obvious examples. Today, of course, the factory is not functioning (and will soon be demolished), though it had a tremendous impact on the town and the region. The landscape, “Beech-Nut Factory on the Mohawk River,” was completed during the 1920s, a high point for the factory. The painting is both a reminder of the success of the factory and of the town, and of what the site looks like today.
“Art of the Erie Canal” opens at the New York State Museum on Saturday and will run through Sept. 23. For information, visit nysm.nysed.gov.